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Thoughts on Commencement

| Thursday, March 9, 2017

We live in a divided age, a divided world and a much divided country.  The United States has perhaps not been this polarized since the Civil War.  Not since those bloody five years were the American people so divided on an issue that they vehemently rejected the results of the presidential election, denied that he who was elected was “their President,” and resorted to widespread violence and bloodshed in an effort to be “free.”  Fortunately, we are not yet at the same degree of conflict, but we may be more divided than at any time since. For 150 years afterwards, people have argued, they have disagreed and they have protested.  In the end, however, they respected the rule of law, and they respected the office of President, even if they disliked the one who occupied it.

These days seem long forgotten. The issues have certainly changed in 150 years, but the conflict cuts almost as deep for both sides. In the wake of perhaps the most controversial election in American history, we have an attitude of “it’s my way or the highway.” We have forgotten that this nation was built on compromise and cooperation. We have forgotten how to “love our enemies,” and respect them enough to work together. We can no longer even listen the voices of those who disagree, for they are loathsome to us, and it is this mentality that is causing so many people to vehemently oppose Mike Pence coming to speak at Commencement this May.  They see him as the enemy, and think that the invitation means that the University supports all of his political opinions, including those seen as hateful and anti-Catholic.

Have we forgotten that we faced the same issue — though perhaps on a smaller scale — eight years ago?  Those who protested Barack Obama speaking at Commencement now support Mike Pence being invited (or else wish that Donald Trump was invited), and those who supported Obama now protest Pence. The truth is, however, that both had opinions that were contrary to Catholic teaching, but they were invited out of respect for their offices.  When I heard about the divide eight years ago, I supported the University’s decision to invite President Obama to speak. I may not have agreed with him, but I respected the office of President, and in the end, that is what the point of the invitation was. The University stood on the principle of inviting the President, no matter who it was, and no matter what policies they supported. If I were graduating this year and Hillary Clinton had been elected in November, I would have gone to graduation and listened to her speak, even though I disagree with her politically. In the end, the invitation is about respect for the presidency and the government, and about allowing the speaker to offer knowledge and advice to the graduates. It is not about any of their political opinions, which most likely will not be mentioned in their speeches. And even if they are, if we cannot even listen to an opinion contrary to our own, are we not being as intolerant as we accuse “the enemy” of being?

We may never know for certain whether the University did not invite President Trump, or they invited him and he declined. If he wasn’t invited, I am mildly disappointed that the University did not stand on principle, but I understand why. Donald Trump has proven a very polarizing figure in our country, and his presence would have taken focus away from the graduating class; the focus of Commencement should always be on the graduates. I myself have disagreed with many of his recent decisions. I think that Pence is a good compromise, and the fact that he is a practicing Christian and a native of Indiana makes him an even better choice. To those who still disagree with the decision to invite him, I ask you not to focus on what “hurtful” things he has said and focus on the fact that you have the privilege to hear the Vice President of the United States speak at your graduation. Take this as an opportunity to hear a different perspective, and to gain new understanding. If you still disagree with what he says, that is okay, as long as you gave him chance.

Many of you may disagree with everything I have just said, and some of you may even want to write a counterpoint. That is your right, and I do not begrudge you of it. But before you do, think about the issue. Look beyond the surface, the rhetoric and the divide. Try to see every side, and try to understand where I, the University and other supportive students are coming from. If you can do this, then by all means, write a counterpoint, or argue with me in person. That is the first step in healing the political divide — we must engage in discussion and civil discourse, and we must listen to our opponents, rather than avoiding them and branding them as “the enemy.”

I am a little disappointed that I am not graduating the year after an election. For those who are, you have an opportunity to hear one of the leaders of our country speak to you. I hope that you will take it. Whether you disagree with the speaker on everything or agree with them wholeheartedly, you have an opportunity to see beyond the filters of media and make a judgement based on your own ears and eyes. In the end, new opportunity is what makes graduation so special.

Andrew Poirier is a junior, double-majoring in mechanical engineering and theatre.  He is a native of Evans, Georgia and a resident of Siegfried Hall. In addition to occasionally debating politics, he enjoys reading, building Legos, FTT sets and robots, and doing his best to finish homework in time to get decent sleep.

This viewpoint represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of BridgeND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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